The Germanic Component of Old and Middle French: Frankish, Gothic, Burgundian and Their Contributions to the English Tongue
When William the Conqueror, Duke or Normandy in northern France, seized control of London and the English royal treasury of Winchester in 1066 A.D., crowning himself king, he ushered in a period of fundamental change in the laws, physical structure, customs, economy (England became feudal), church-state relations, architecture, and even the language of England. William’s army seems to have been predominantly Flemish (Dutch speakers, oddly enough), yet its leaders were the Normans, the descendants of Viking raiders led by the Norwegian Rollo (Hrolf) who settled northern France in 911 A.D. By William’s time, the Scandinavians had adopted French culture and, in many cases, taken Frankish wives, such that they were largely French-speaking even as they alighted on English soil at Pevensey in their Viking longboats, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry commemorating the Norman Conquest. Following William’s victory over the English king Harold Godwinson at Hastings and his consolidation of power over the next few years—which involved suppression of Norman revolts as much as English and Danish (in the country’s north) insurrections— French and Latin became official languages of the English court, legal apparatus, and official documents, and English for several centuries was effectively trilingual (English, French, and Latin) in its culture. Indeed, for several centuries after 1066, “English” literature was largely composed in French.
The role of
course, was and is a Romance language derived from the so-called “Vulgar Latin”
or street Latin spoken by the soldiers and settlers of the
however, Norman French also imparted a substantial cohort of German words into English. Why?
Well, “Gallo-Roman” became “French” when Roman Gaul was invaded,
conquered, and heavily settled by three Germanic tribes in the 5th
century A.D.: the Visigoths, Burgundians, and the Franks, who gave France the country and
French the language its name when they established their kingdom there. The language of the Franks, Frankish, was closely related to Old Franconian, the ancestor of modern Dutch. For a time, the German tribes in
On the road
toward assimilation, however, the Germans fundamentally altered the Romance
tongues which they adopted as their own.
This was especially apparent in fields like military affairs and
agriculture—two areas where the German presence, even during the period of
direct Roman rule, were significant.
Words from the various Germanic dialects spoken by the Germans began to
percolate into Vulgar Latin, and this became especially true in the case of the
Franks, who settled thickly in
course, had entered into the Vulgar Latin prior to its differentiation into the
separate Romance languages. For example,
the French word for pride, orgueil, is of Germanic origin, as are its cognates in the
other Romance tongues: Spanish orgullo,
Italian orgoglio. (An ironic example, since the English word pride is of French,
and hence Latin, origin. It and its
imported into English from Old French, prior to the Norman Conquest. Thus a Germanic language uses a Latin-based
word, while the Romance languages utilize a Germanic word.) Many others streamed in after French had
diverged as a distinct language and are not found in other Romance idioms:
French fauteuil (chair, armchair), tomber (to
fall—akin to English tumble), avachir (to make
weak or flabby, akin to modern German weich—weak, flimsy, soft), navré (the interjection “sorry!”,
akin to German Narbe,
a wound, scar), batiment
(building, akin to English build,
bateau (boat), or epargner, to store away, hold
onto (akin to German sparen
and English spare). In fact, French is by far the most Germanic
of all the Romance languages. The
significance of this fact for the topic at hand is that when the Normans and Angevins transported Norman/Angevin
French across the
Since the Germans
There is a
large and significant collection of words which stem from Germanic roots in
French, and are related to English wary
and beware as well as German wahren “to watch
over, supervise.” This is the “guar/war”
series of words that all, in some way, connote the idea of supervision,
protection, alertness, and vigilance. Guard and ward are two such examples, both derived from the same Germanic
root in French (and thence in English after the
Also in the military/vigilance series of Germanic French roots is one of the most common words in the English language: wait. This word stems from Old North French waitier and, in turn, from Frankish Germanic roots akin to English watch and German wachen. The modern French cognate, guetter, in fact still carries this meaning, denoting a “lying in wait” as near a military installation. However, its significance drifted when imported into English such that it now denotes the act of waiting itself. Some other words in this category: trap, attack, attach, harass, hardy, shock, strife, equip, march, seize, troop, gauntlet, champion, embroil, massacre, shock, guise, guile, guide, harass, skirmish, engage, spy, rank, banish, burglar, rob, poach, feud, bandit, garret, foray, gauntlet.
Some words in this category pertain to those most French of undertakings: fashion and cuisine. Coat, attire, pouch, pocket, garb, robe, and wardrobe are all of Franco-German descent, as are braise, bacon, baste, roast, soup, and grape. Many motions and depictions of physical contact descend from Franco-German sources: bruise, crush, cramp, hurt. The Franks, Burgundians, Visigoths, and other German tribes in Gaul engaged heavily in farming and craftworks, so many terms for tools, construction, and fieldwork in French (transmitted into English) are of Germanic origin: hoe, harness, buret, bucket, brick, filter, mail (originally a reference to the small bag in which mail could be transported), towel, crochet, buoy, balloon, balcony, button, bandage, flask. A few words, of Latin origin, appeared in Germanic languages and then back into French, and into English: decoy, stuff, chamberlain. Another small set of words—beg and beggar, screen, drug, block, boulevard—were imported into French from Dutch, and thence into English somewhat later than most other loans. Even some titles for English peerage, stemming from Norman and Angevin French, in turn demonstrate a Germanic origin: baron and marquis. (Duke and viscount are of Franco-Latin origin, while king, queen, and earl are of Anglo-Saxon descent.)
Many others words, more difficult to shoehorn into specific categories, show the same Franco-Germanic heritage: group, remark, regret, butt, bastard, race, salon, saloon, harbinger, flinch, touch, brash, fee, choice, haste, hardy, bank, bench, furnish, furniture, label, target, escrow, coach, ramp, rampage, embassy, ambassador, spell, garden, etiquette, ticket (same source as etiquette), park, install, goal, hangar, rubbish, rubble, scroll, random, eschew, blue, blemish, flatter, scorn, tack, dance, allure, lure, bourgeois, burgess, bourg, blond, wage, wager, gauge, gain, bargain, rich, haul, debauch, liege, brush, browse, refurbish, packet, embroider, rummage, banner, banquet, souse, array, plaque.
essential and intriguing category of Franco-Germanic origin is names.
Male names in
-- Wes Ulm
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